This Sunday marks the last day of September, which, as everyone knows, has 30 days. "Thirty days hath September, April, June and November . . ." is, perhaps, the most commonly known and used memory aid of all. I focus on memory aids, or mnemonics (pronounced nee-MAH-nicks), frequently in these Family Learning columns because they are so useful to adults and children alike; they can be tailored to meet each individual's learning needs and they can be adapted to virtually any subject or situation.
The area in which mnemonics can be most immediately useful, I think, is spelling because here is an area where individual learning styles and individual learning problems are most readily apparent. Spelling is also an area in which the concern of parents is at least as important as the conditions in the classroom.Let me show you just one example of how a simple memory aid can improve your confidence, and your child's confidence, in correctly spelling words that are all-too-frequently spelled incorrectly.
The title of the highest official in a school district offers only one spelling problem and, consequently, is misspelled only one way. Virtually every child and adult has absolute confidence in beginning the word "s-u-p-e-r-i-n-t-e-n-d . . . ," but now is it "a-n-t" or is it "e-n-t"? Even if you think you know, are you absolutely certain? Certain enough to address that envelope without checking the dictionary first? A reliable memory aid would link that one troublesome syllable to a word that you already know how to spell. I teach and use the following mnemonic: "The superintendENT is concerned about every studENT." This is a useful memory aid because it makes sense and because very few people are likely to misspell the final word "studant."
I can also expand this mnemonic to include several other words that I find difficult to spell. For example: "The superintendENT is concerned about every studENT. He must be insistENT and persistENT about the education of all the studENTs because his job is dependENT upon how well they do."
I can include other troublesome words ("correspondENT," for example) by extending the story, and the mnemonic offers up several related words on its own, such as insistEnce, persistEnce, dependEnce, dependEncy and correspondEnce. All I must do is design the story to meet my own spelling needs and then repeat that story to myself in exactly the same way each time.
By using this mnemonic, I can now spell all these words - words that used to make me search my brain for synonyms that I could spell - with confidence, and this is what your spelling goal should be for yourselves and for your children: to have confidence in your ability to spell precisely the words that you need to spell precisely. The times will be rare, indeed, when you must use words like "diarrhea" or "desiccate" on a job application or an in-class theme, so don't worry about these brain-busters; if you need them for a special occasion, you can always check them in a dictionary.
Mnemonics are just another tool to add to your spelling resources. Knowing how to sound out words and knowing the rules that govern English spelling are important, of course, but mnemonics can fill in all those exception and those areas that seem so perverse they can trap us into thinking that good spellers are born, not made. That's bunk, but this is not: Good spellers are made in homes that value good spelling.